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Kids These Days: [Insert Internet Reference into Pre-21st Century Novel Here]

2013 March 18
by Hannah Gómez
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judy blume forever coverPart of the fun of reading YA is discovering the classics from a time other than when you were a teen yourself. What girl hasn’t felt a little bit dirty, a little bit relieved, when first discovering a Judy Blume title? And who wasn’t assigned to read a classic novel from the 17th or 18th century in high school and found that it wasn’t totally awful? Who didn’t like a line or two of Shakespeare once they learned the definition of a new word and figured out the pun? Reading books that are no longer contemporary can be rewarding and challenging, and especially in the world of YA, it allows you to fully participate in the conversation about what YA means, how the definitions of “teen” and “young adult” evolve, and how current authors draw their inspiration from the authors of earlier YA.

That’s why reissues of novels are common. All you need is a cover that represents current trends in design, and you have new readers who will pick up your book for the first time. But what happens when the reissue isn’t just a facelift?

I recently read some ebooks by some of those classic, before-I-was-a-teen authors that I still read as a teen (and am clearly reading again now, as an adult), Lois Duncan and Caroline B. Cooney. They are part of a company of authors for all ages, including the Berenstains, Lawrence Durrell, and Zilpha Keatley Snyder, being republished in e-book form by Open Road Media, a company that says it does quick turnaround and innovative marketing to bring entire backlists to life in 90 days.

I think this is a great idea. What a great way to introduce these authors to new readers and to allow tried and true fans to complete their collections! But as I was reading, I realized that they weren’t just reissues. They were rewrites.

twisted1987Take The Twisted Window by Lois Duncan. Originally published in 1987, this thriller about a girl helping a strange boy with a kidnapping is still just as scary as it would have been back then. It’s also a very 1980s book: Brad asks the protagonist, Tracy, out for a Coke, and the speech patterns are very different from the way we talk today. Does that mean it’s Shakespearean English? Not so much. And yet I found myself confused about why everyone was talking and living the way they did in the 80s when I saw the words “Internet” and “cell phone” dropped in. So I did some research, and it turns out, Duncan was given the chance to rewrite them before they were e-published. She says, “I haven’t changed the characters or plots — those have held strong over the years — but I’ve been able to update the language (which was sometimes sort of old-fashioned) and the clothing and the hair styles. Most important, I’ve given my characters computers and cell phones and digital cameras.”

twisted2012I was still very aware of the old-fashioned-ness of the language, and I think other readers will be, too. Just like you can tell whether written speech is British or American, southern or Bostonian, you can tell when you read something that is different from the way you speak. And keeping plots the same means that they depend on their time and place, because thrillers like these deal with using the resources around you to stay smart and ahead of the murderer, kidnapper, or whatever the villain may be. So what bothered me was not that the language still felt old-fashioned, despite Duncan’s efforts, but that it was made awkward by the new references to 21st century technology, not by the ways it was still the same 1987 it had always been.

milkcarton1990You’ve probably read or heard about Caroline B. Cooney’s The Face on the Milk Carton, the series about a girl, Janie, who learned she was kidnapped as a toddler and raised by parents who were not the kidnappers and, rather, thought they were Janie’s grandparents (their daughter, the kidnapper, said Janie was her daughter and that she needed them to take care of her).

The first book was published in 1990, and over the years, more sequels have come out, the most recent of which (Janie Face to Face) was published in 2012. But if Cooney has aged 22 years over the writing of her novels, the books only span about six. And yet each sequel takes place at the time it was published, meaning that the five novels each have very different contexts of technology and lifestyle. The final book in the series said the term “e-reader” more times than I hear in a year.

milkcarton2012In seeing how these reissues try, not necessarily successfully, to look as if this is the first time they are being published, I wonder: what does that say about how authors and publishers view their readers? Do they think today’s teens aren’t capable of understanding a story that has landline phones and going out for sodas instead of texting while sitting with each other at Starbucks? Do they just think that that makes a story less enjoyable, even though people still read Austen and Dickens? From an interview with Cooney in Publishers Weekly, it seems she thinks that the time lapses in her series are a way of respecting the reader: “This is fiction and my readers are brilliant. I think kids will take it in stride just like they take technology changes in stride in their own lives.” I’m not sure I understand what she means. I almost feel like it’s a way of people assuming that “kids these days” won’t read a YA with a compelling plot and characters unless it is peppered with tweets and texts.

What do you think? Does it add something to rewrite books to attempt to stay with the times? Is it insulting to or respectful of contemporary readers? What does it say to older fans who want to share their favorite books with their kids or students?

– Hannah Gómez, currently reading Daughters Who Walk This Path by Yejide Kilanko

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9 Responses
  1. Chelsea Condren permalink
    March 18, 2013

    I’ve thought about this a lot, too. I think, as you said, the problem with these rewrites is that we can all see through the language and speech patterns and behaviors of the characters, so it’s not like adding “Facebook” is going to suddenly bring the novel into 2013. I think that’s part of the fun of reading a “vintage” YA novel.

    • March 20, 2013

      Exactly! I actually have the same problem when I see British authors writing Americans and vice versa – I can “hear” the difference and it drives me crazy when it’s wrong!

  2. Chelsea Condren permalink
    March 18, 2013

    (continued)–that we get to revisit a time when characters still bought new dresses to go to their first school dances.

  3. Lover of YA permalink
    March 19, 2013

    This is appauling. Readers, despite being teens, should be able to handle the details from a book written thirty years before their time. It provides them with a context for culture and what life was like for teens thirty years ago. What is wrong with that?

    As a writer, I don’t know how well I would take to a publisher asking me to “modernize” a book that I’d written. Isn’t that what makes The Great Gatsby Great or Frankenstein great? If Fitsgerald had been asked twenty years after Gatsby had been written to modernize his work, it would have completely changed the impact it has on readers. What makes that book so powerful is that it is pre-Great Depression. Any adjustments or changes made to that novel would be tainted with the fact that the writer is aware of this big historical moment.

    While I’m by no means arguing that these YA books are The Great Gatsby’s of their time, there is an element of historical knoweldge and cultural issues that are ignored.

    Frankly, it seems unfair to let young readers not be exposed to the past. Isn’t that what makes reading great, the escape from all things that are part of your reality?

    Sorry, I totally ranted here.

    • Marcia Stiller permalink
      March 19, 2013

      @Lover of YA I totally agree with your rant!

    • March 20, 2013

      They were old when I read them for the first time and I did just fine! So yes, and thank you for agreeing with me. LOL.

  4. Cathi Dunn MacRae permalink
    March 23, 2013

    Hannah, I strongly agree with you–and you’re a generation younger than I am, so I’m glad to hear you feel the same way. Novels are a product of their time; often many story elements could only occur in that time. Why do we expect this teen generation’s readers to need to be coddled into thinking that the Internet and cellphones always ruled? They already know, from their own parents’ life stories, that it isn’t true. Many teens encounter historical fiction and older contemporary fiction in their English classes or on library shelves, and they don’t seem to be shocked. It’s a gift to any reader to realize that no matter what technology people have, they behave the way human beings have always behaved, and care about the same things. Many teens love old movies, and certainly don’t expect them to acquire today’s gizmos.

    My own favorite activity today is volunteering in my local public library to run a teen writing group. Of course its young writers are awesome, and I am fascinated to see how interested they are in past times. Many of them are inspired by iconic musical artists of the past, such as the Beatles, or older artists such as Elton John. When they write poetry, they often call on those musical images that have become part of our culture. Some of these young writers compose their work on their laptops or phones, but most of them write longhand in notebooks. Paper: an ancient technology.

    BTW, Hannah, I’ve been so happy to see you online as a professional, when not so long ago you were one of my finest teen writers published in VOYA!

    • March 24, 2013

      I’m glad so many people are engaging with this! I really thought I was the only one who found this annoying and so jarringly obvious. And yeah, engaging with the past is FUN, so it’s silly to think that a teen today could love listening to Jimi Hendrix but be incapable of enjoying a novel from the same time period. (The one concession I will make to the other side is that it is TERRIFYING to read Judy Blume for the first time and think that you will have to go around wearing a belt under your clothes once a month.)

  5. March 24, 2013

    I think I like the IDEA of an updated book more than the actual result of one. Like, sometimes references to old technology or discotheques or something CAN be confusing, and it distracts you from the story. So updating things a bit that way is a good idea…until you run into the problem you talked about in your post. It’s not JUST outdated tech that’s the “problem,” it’s speech patterns and slang and even sentence construction. Modern kids books just aren’t written the same way that older ones are, so even if you stick in cell phones it’s still going to sound “weird.” I think kids can handle a little weirdness, though. If they don’t know what a floppy disk is, can’t they just ask someone? Or Google it? Is it REALLY that big of a deal?

    Some authors go the whole hog and rewrite more than just the tech, though. Diane Duane, for instance, has created updated versions of her Young Wizards series. I read a few pages of the new version of So You Want to Be a Wizard and it was VERY different from the original (written in 1982). Same ideas, same scene, same characters, etc., but very different speech patterns and even writing style. (I didn’t like it, tbh. I liked the original version, old Apple Macs and all.)

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